Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Fun with Dialogue

Posted by Eileen Astels

One of the reasons I love writing dialogue is because I as the writer have time to ponder great one-liners for my characters. In real life, there are many times I walk away from a conversation and stomp my foot thinking, oh, why didn't I think to say such'n'such instead? What a lost opportunity. Then I sigh and mope for a little longer wishing time could be reversed for just a little bit.

Well, fellow writers, our characters never need mess up their words again, unless of course we want them to [wink wink-- we can be so devious, can't we.] Revisions are on our character's side, so next time you're in edit mode with your story, take a good look at your dialogue and ask yourself these four questions about each line. (Yes, I said each line. There are no shortcuts to good writing.)

These questions come courtesy of James N. Frey via How to Write A Damn Good Novel.

  1. Is it in conflict?
  2. Is it trite?
  3. Can it be said better indirectly?
  4. Is the line as clever and colorful as it can be?

But remember, as you answer these four questions you must stay true to who your character is. Make sure that the dialogue, as clever and colorful as it may be, reveals who the character is, and isn't something just dropped in to liven the exchange.

I leave you with one more quote by James N. Frey, "Direct dialogue expresses exactly what is on the character's mind with no attempt on the part of the character to demur, use subterfuge, lie, be witty, and so on. Fine dialogue expresses the will of the character indirectly."

And it is much more fun to "express the will of a character indirectly", and your readers will thank you for the extra effort too. But like everything in life, the punch comes in moderation. Not all dialogue lends itself to indirect dialogue, but you can still work on the conflict, triteness, cleverness, and colourfulness for those lines too. The point of these questions is to check that each line is exactly what you want it to be, and to know why.

Any great indirect exchanges out there you'd like to share? We could learn from each other.

Surrendering to Him,



sherrinda said...

Great post, Eileen, and a great list of questions to ask. I must say I have never really thought my dialogue through. I am getting near the revision stage, so I will definitely be asking some of these questions!

Jessica said...

Hmmm, I don't have any examples off the top of my head, but I love these questions to ask! Very interesting, and I'm going to try to remember them.
Thanks for sharing!

Lazy Writer said...

Maybe I'll spend today looking at my dialogue. It could use some attention!

Erica Vetsch said...

This is so true, Eileen, and something I'm working hard at learning to do better. Subtexting through dialogue is one of those nebulous skills I know I need to hone.

Eileen Astels Watson said...

Hi, ladies. I'm working harder at subtexting too. It's not something that comes naturally for me, because I tend to say it like it is or not talk at all. But talking indirectly is so much fun when you get into it. I just need to do it more with my characters.

Jody Hedlund said...

Great article, Eileen! I really like those four questions and will try to keep them in mind as I write dialogue! Thanks for such great tips!

Kara said...

I love these questions. I tend to chatter when I talk and sometimes I have to make sure my characters are saying things that need to be said and aren't just babbling:)

Eileen Astels Watson said...

That's the key, Kara, have a reason for every word spoken in dialogue, make it do double duty. Reveal character, advance the plot, or cause conflict. If you do this, then you've succeeded in the revisions.

Angie Ledbetter said...

Good post, thanks!